The Heat is OFF

I’ll never forget the winter of 2017-18. It was cold INSIDE.

Outside, the temperatures were average for our area – mid-30s in the daytime, teens and 20s at night, with occasional bursts of sunshine boosting us into the 50s. We had some ice, a bit of snow, but nothing compared to the wintry weather our friends in Colorado and Minnesota were experiencing. Yet, inside our apartment, we had icicles on the bedroom window, with the central heat unit running constantly to no avail. When my mom came over for her birthday last January, it was so cold inside that she wore her coat the entire time. She even had me stand on a chair to feel the cold air coming from the vents in the ceiling. It was not a fun time to say the least.

A year ago, maintenance checked our unit and said it was running fine. They concluded that the cold air was due to the outside unit itself being cold, which supposedly restricts airflow. I attribute it to poor building maintenance. Our apartment was built in the 90s. The duct work is probably leaking. But I’m no HVAC repair woman so we decided to handle matters our own way.

When the temperatures started dropping in October, we challenged ourselves to see how long we could go without turning on the heat unit. Instead, we used two of these little guys:

We thought the space heaters would buy us a few extra weeks without turning on the heat. We never expected that they would work so well that 3 months later, we’re still using them as our primary source of heat.

We have two 1500W forced-air space heaters that cost $10 each. We use one in the living room when we are home and one in the bedroom/bathroom as needed throughout the day. Neither runs constantly. When the inside temperature reaches 71 degrees, we turn them off. When it dips below 68, we turn them on. So far, we have not used either heater while we’re sleeping at night, though Angie turns the bedroom heater on about 30 minutes before we get up to knock off the chill. The lowest overnight temperature (outside) so far this year has been 17 degrees. That same night, our indoor temp dropped just 7 degrees (from 71 when we went to bed to 64 when we woke up). When my mom came for Christmas, it got so warm inside that we had to open the back door. It was 40 degrees outside and no heat was on inside.

Not only are we not freezing to death inside our apartment this year, we’re actually comfortable. Angie is not wearing her beanie to watch TV this winter and I don’t have a thermal layer on under my jeans. We did add a 2nd blanket to our bed but other than that, no special accommodations have been made to stay warm. We’re simply capitalizing on some heat-generating aspects that we never thought to consider before. For example, we’re on the 2nd floor of a 3-story building, making us the “sandwich” apartment. We are insulated by the apartments above and below, which helps us maintain our temperature longer. Also, by cooking dinner every night, we can raise the temp by 1-2 degrees (and have a delicious meal to boot!).

Our experiment primarily started as a way to avoid turning on the inefficient central heat unit. We weren’t thinking about saving money or reducing our carbon footprint at the time, but the byproduct of our effort is that we did both. Our energy bill dropped by 13% and we reduced our carbon footprint by 20%. We’re pretty happy about that! Almost as happy as we are about my mom’s sudden interest in recycling plastics. Oh yes, that happened this month too. After years of picking on us for recycling everything, she suddenly one day started sending me home with her empty plastics to take to recycling. 2019 might just be the year for miracles after all!

All kidding aside, even the smallest things can make a big impact when it comes to saving money and saving our planet.

Greening Up for Earth Day

Earth Day is Sunday, April 22 and this year’s theme is ending plastic pollution. If you’ve ever lived near a waterway or even just watched the documentary film: A Plastic Ocean, then you know the disastrous effect that plastic can have on our environment. When Angie and I volunteered for sea turtle patrol in Venice, FL in 2014, we quickly saw how littered a beach can become in just one day’s time. Plastic bottles and straws were the most often discarded items on our one-mile stretch of beach and it didn’t take long before the bag we carried was filled with these things (as well as plastic beach toys and flip-flops).

Over the past few years, we’ve made a real effort to downsize the amount of plastic we use. We stopped buying bottled water altogether about 5 years ago and bought a water-filtration pitcher instead. We always carry a stainless-steel water bottle everywhere we go and a we keep a couple of reusable straws and bamboo sporks in our glove box for dining out.

In 2016, we did a partial plastic purge and upgraded many of our food storage containers to glass. Last year (much to our dismay), a friend of my mom’s gave us nearly 50 plastic containers (the kind that lunch meat comes in). Our first reaction was to recycle them but instead of doing so right away, we put them in the cabinet. Big mistake! Within a short period of time, we found ourselves using them for leftovers. A few weeks ago, we combed through the cabinet again and removed all of these containers, along with every plastic sandwich bag, storage bag, and roll of plastic wrap we could find. Our kitchen drawer looks like this now:

We received 2 Vejibags for free at VegFest. They are made of organic cotton and keep veggies fresh for up to 2 weeks. A great choice for eliminating both plastic and food waste!

If you’re wondering what we did with the discarded plastics, we recycled what we could and gave the bags and wrap away. Day cares, kindergarten classrooms, and food pantries will almost always take your unwanted (unused) sandwich bags. Though it’s not the most ideal solution, it is still better than just chucking them in the trash.

Next up, we tackled the pantry. We have been saving food jars (mostly salsa jars from the Farmer’s Market) for a while now and finally sat down to clean the labels off of them this week. Since we found a bulk store within a relatively short drive of us, we’ve decided to buy what we can there. Not only will the jars reduce our use of plastic bags, but they look really neat too.

EarthDay.org has a great Plastic Pollution Calculator on their website that can help you track your plastic footprint. One of the interesting things on their list that caught my attention was the bathroom. Items like cotton swabs and toothpaste containers were not something that I’d previously given much thought to. In fact, with a little effort, you can actually recycle toothpaste tubes and cotton swabs can be purchased on bamboo sticks. (There’s even a stainless-steel ear cleaner for the very brave among us. Personally, I would stab my eardrum out!)

In addition to our Earth Day plastic-reduction efforts, we wanted to step up our water and electricity conservation game too.

Angie replaced all of the light bulbs in our apartment with 60W-equivalent CFLs. LED bulbs are a good option too – both offer significant savings over the incandescent bulbs that were already installed in our apartment – but we went with what was on sale.

We replaced our standard shower head with a low-flow handheld shower with a “pause” button. The new shower head has a flow rate of 1.6 GPM (gallons per minute). A standard shower head ranges from 2.0 – 2.5 GPM. The pause button on the new shower head slows the flow to a trickle so that we can save even more water (think modified version of a Navy shower).

The last thing that we did toward water conservation was to put a quart jar full of water in the back of our toilet. The jar takes up space in the toilet tank that would otherwise be refilled with water after every flush. For every 4 flushes, we save 1 gallon of water. This may not work with low-flow toilets but we happen to have an older toilet in our apartment.

Tonight, we’re doing our own version of an energy audit. We’re going to unplug everything that is currently plugged in (except the fridge and freezer) and only plug them back in when we need them. I’m hoping this will allow us to identify and eliminate most of our energy vampires.

Do you have any green home improvement plans for Earth Day this year?